Why solo travellers travel alone and other thoughts

Why solo travellers travel alone and other thoughts

Do you get a look of surprise or pity when you say that you are travelling somewhere solo? You are going on your own because you have no friends? 

We probably all look at someone eating on their own in a restaurant. Eating is a social activity. We break bread together. So when we see someone eating on their own we can’t help but wonder. What is their story? 

And yet solo travellers would not have it any other way. We value the freedom too much, the freedom to do what we want, when we want, where we want and if we have to leave the who we want behind, then so be it.

I came across another reason for travelling solo on a recent jaunt to Lyon. 

I had planned the trip as an exploration into rail travel. Travelling by rail uses about 90% less carbon than flying, and of course I would like to reduce my carbon footprint. What responsible traveller does not? 

But was I prepared to pay the price in longer travel times and a more expensive ticket? 

The train was a little more expensive, but most budget flights charge for cases, which is not the case on the train, so there was not a great deal of difference. Time wise, the convenience of stations being in the centre of cities reduced travelling time considerably.  The overall journey was 6 hours, and I must admit I was flagging a bit by the 5thhour. However, once you have taken the decision to go by train, so many more destinations are opened up to you. 

But enough digression. On to Lyon! 

The modern part of Lyon into which the train draws is fairly unremarkable, grey buildings on a grey, almost raining day. Once you are out of the station, the city has a French feel, wide streets, bustling…even in covid times… but without being too busy or crowded. It is once you start getting close to the first River, the Rhone, that you begin to see why you have travelled here. 

Most great European cities are based around the river that brought them trade. Lyon is remarkable in that it has two great rivers, the Rhone and Saone. As you reach the Rhone and see the colourful old part of the city on the hill on the other side, you begin to see the beauty and magic of this city. 

The hill on the other side is steep, and although there is apparently a funicular to take you up, I didn’t see it. And those steps didn’t look too bad. If you are thinking of training Rocky-style, come to Lyon. Those steps are a killer! 

Steps by solo traveller Anthony Kingsley

I had come up here to see the Roman amphitheatre and museum in the heart of Roman Lugdunum. The amphitheatres are impressive, for there are two. One for plays and one for poetry. The museum on the other hand from the outside looks quite mundane. Until you go inside. It is huge, well spaced out over several floors going down. Lyon was a centre for mosaics. It  still boasts a world renowned mosaic training school. The mosaics they have on display are well preserved, beautiful,  and help us to understand why the skill is still practiced today. 

But what really blew me away was an exhibition they had entitled “Enquete de Pouvoir.” It is a study of the pursuit of power when the succession of a leader is interrupted by sudden death. The two examples they take are the vacuum caused by the death of Julius Caesar and secondly the struggle at the end of the year of the Five Emperors, AD197 between Severus and Albinus. It is particularly apt because Severus’ victory at the Battle of Lugdunum gave him control of the Empire. 

What struck me were the modern parallels of how ordinary people were sucked into the ego and ambition of those people who wish to lead. It would have made little difference to the people of Lugdunum, those mosaic makers, the people trading along the Rhone, whether they were ruled by Severus or Albinus, but they paid a heavy price for backing the loser, as did the people of Lugdunum. Is it really any different now when we consider the egos of a Boris Johnson, a Vladimir Putin, or really most other leaders? The quest for power is always paid for in someone else’s blood. 

Coming out of the museum and turning back to look at it, you then realise that the museum is in fact hewn out of the hill. It is impressive and one of the best museums dedicated to the Roman empire that I have come across. 

Photo of the Roman Theatre by the Travelling Copywriter

But now it’s time to walk back down the killer steps. At the bottom is the area known as the Traboules, a series of secret passageways. They were used by the silk weavers of the past to get down to the river, and by resistance fighters during the German occupation to evade capture. Atmospheric, but still part of an active city, doorways leading to homes. 

My feet were aching after a morning of going up and down steps, so I stopped at a local café for a coffee. While waiting to be served, I was having a browse on my phone when I came across a quote from writer Virginia Woolf which seemed really apt to me. 

“I hope that you will possess yourselves of enough money to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future and the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.” 

And I thought to myself, “Isn’t that why we travel solo? To have the time to think, to read, to browse and loiter.  I can sit back and watch the people wandering by outside the café, the young lovers with not a care in the world, the middle aged man walking very fast… perhaps late getting back to work from lunch, the old couple with their elderly dog. We can watch the world go by, our world, and think “is this it?” 

We can ponder on the pursuit of power, or on how we are ravaging the environment on which we depend for life, inequality or great compassion. 

And then perhaps instead of contemplating the future and the past of the world, we can narrow our focus to our own future and past. What do we want from the world, and from ourselves? 

While we are away, we are disconnected from our normal life, from the usual distractions, and that means we can think  with more clarity about what really connects us to our purpose. We can allow our curiosity to roam, to explore the things that are important to us. Can I learn anything about myself from watching these Lyonnais, how they live, they love, they die? 

There is an inscription on a Roman sarcophagus which reads

“Make the most of life. Where you were, I was, and where I am, you’ll be.” 

A great epitaph which really resonates with mem and one which prompts me to ask myself “Am I making the most of life?” 

Travelling alone gives you the time to think, and to dip into that stream of thought. 

Street Photography in the style of Cartier Bresson

Street Photography in the style of Cartier Bresson

One of my favourite Photography Meet Up Groups is London Photographer’s School run by Zara Matthews. A format that she frequently chooses is to base the workshop on the work of a well known photographer and to give us a few exercises to complete in that style.

This format gives us a sense of the history of photography as well as the opportunity to broaden our skills. Of course one drawback will be immediately apparent. Well known photographers have had a lifetime to hone their craft, and to build their portfolio of work. We have three sessions of about 40 minutes to emulate examples of their style. Sometimes we do not quite get to that elevated level, but the thought process of seeing and and doing is invaluable

Street Photography in the style of Cartier Bresson was a particularly challenging series of exercises. Cartier Bresson was the master of what he called the decisive moment, waiting for that perfect moment to click the shutter, and Cartier Bresson could wait for hours for that decisive moment to come to him. We only had 30 minutes or so.

First Exercise

Our first exercise in Street Photography in the style of Cartier Bresson was to focus on staircases and the action that occurs on them. Staircases provide diagonal lines, and are usually framed between to horizontal lines. Occasionally those lines can be curved if we have a curved stair cases, but in either case the stairs will often provide a framing mechanism and a backdrop. We can shoot at the bottom, looking up. We can frame our shots at the top, looking down, or we can be at some point on the staircase looking up or down.

We took two staircases as our “model”, a set inside Somerset House and the stairs on the adjacent Waterloo Bridge. Cartier Bresson invariably used a 50mm lens for his work. I decided to use my Lensbaby Velvet 56, shooting at an aperture of F8 or F5.6. The Lensbaby is perhaps not the best for Street Photography because it is a manual focus lens, and if you are looking for a decisive moment, you do not want to be trying to focus and time your shot perfectly. However, the subject on most of these shots would be distant, so I could leave the focussing on maximum distance and concentrate on composition.

The shots inside Somerset House were less successful as I had spent too much time at Waterloo Bridge, and there was not enough time to wait for people to interact with the staircase. Instead I had to satisfy myself with a shot of the detail of the staircase.

Second Exercise

The second exercise involved us moving up towards Covent Garden to take images of people interacting with each other. For this exercise I did switch to my standard Nikon 1.4 50mm lens with autofocus. Time would be of the essence, and I would be at varying distances. Couples did not seem particularly amorous this afternoon, perhaps because it was cold, or perhaps just because everyone was rushing about. I was pleased with the shot of the two Chinese girls and dog in the gallery below. I just missed the embrace of the couple with the child, and goodness only knows what the girl facing the man was saying.

While I was reviewing these shots (in camera), the saying of Robert Capa came to mind, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are’t close enough.” This saying is of course interpreted in various ways, and it does not mean that you need to get right into the face of your subject. It can be important to the composition of the picture to show the context, and that may mean stepping back a little. For example, the picture of the boy photographing the seagull needs to have the seagull in the picture. I took the shot excluding the rubbish bag the seagull was trying to tear open to get as close as I could, but perhaps I should have been further back, and I definitely should have stopped down.

It is always difficult being in the right place at the right time. Very often the best strategy is to just wait for the scene to come to you rather than going out looking for something that might develop. For example, and taking as an example, Cartier Bresson’s famous photo of a man jumping over a puddle. That shot was not taken through chance, but through patience. Seeing something that has potential and then waiting to see what happens. I sometimes stand on a street corner and just wait, sometimes taking photos of people as they get closer and closer to me. Of course I am left with a lot of photos that are completely devoid of interest, but, that is the beauty of digital photography, just hit the delete button. It also enables me to check on my focus, particularly where the subjects are moving, and also on the background. Is it interesting? Would a slight shift in angle provide a different background?

Third Exercise

The third exercise in our Street Photography in the style of Cartier Bresson was also the one that I found most difficult. Cartier Bresson frequently took as a theme windows, either people looking inside windows at displays inside, or at the people inside, or indeed from inside a shop, looking out.

In terms of technique, shooting through a window into the people inside can be difficult. If it is dark inside, reflections on the glass really obscure what you are shooting. You might get a double exposure effect if you are lucky, but the reflections will make it difficult to capture what you are trying to shoot. Brightly lit interiors such as hairdressers make a good subject with plenty of action inside.

But bizarrely I found it difficult to shoot, pointing my camera at people inside a shop. Bizarre, because I have no problem doing it in the street. It should be more easier shooting someone who is having their hair styled. They can hardly get up and chase after you.

But like all challenges, it is just a question of meeting that challenge, going out and doing it. So my next challenge will be to shoot some people in brightly lit shops and cafes.

Anthony Kingsley Photography
A walk by the canal

A walk by the canal

I started my walk along the canal with this shot from the bridge to the Marshes, looking back at the Millfields power station you can just see in the background. This view has not changed at all in the 30 or so years that I have lived in Hackney. Perhaps the boats are in slightly better condition but essentially this could have been taken at any time and nothing really has changed.

My next shot was taken with the lens thrown quite wide open at F2, and I have to say that I do like the dreamy effect the lens gives at this aperture. The building in the centre background is a modern block of flats which replaced an old, iconic view of Hackney, the Matchbox toy factory. 

The architecture of the new block is impressive in its way, and stands in contrast to many of the new, faceless blocks that are going up in Hackney Wick. 

A picture of the old factory and a potted history can be found in the Hackney Citizen, here: Hackney Citizen: Matchbox Factory

Moving briskly on, we get to the next bridge, which is significant for me because of its stairs. You may see stairs and passages feature heavily in my photography as I like the sense of movement that they portray. I tried converting this into black and white, but the part of the frame which shows the canal appeared too flat in monochrome, and a little colour brought it to life. What do you think? 

The next stage of the walk really sums up the changes in Hackney now. The old give way to the new, but the old hangs on in the form of grafitti and street art. The canal branches to the right towards Victoria Park and straigth ahead lies the new Olympic Stadium, now home to West Ham football club. New of course means dating back to 2012, so hardly new. The picture below represents the old Hackney, small estates with parking, while the new will be much bigger apartment blocks. Often one of the planning conditions imposed on the granting of planning permission is a prohibition against new owners having their own cars. Instead owners are encouraged to use car sharing clubs. 

The graffitti or street art really kicks in from here, particularly on bridges which offer a wide canvas